Johnny Depp is the most bankable star in Hollywood. He plays every role with quirks, and people love him for it no matter how good, bad, or unnecessary (I’m looking at you, Pirates 4) the role may be.
His latest is more understated than many in recent years, that of drunken journalist Paul Kemp, and the result is a pretty enjoyable experience overall.
The Rum Diary is nothing if not true to its name, as there’s plenty of rum and the rough tracings of an on-screen diary. It centers around Kemp moving to Puerto Rico to write horoscopes at the local paper and consume as much booze as he can.
Along the way he meets the tangibly slimy Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who’s looking to monetize Puerto Rico’s beauty by way of the hotel trade. He gets entangled in Sanderson’s plans, and eventually finds himself at odds with the real estate mogul over the moral implications of what’s happening.
The lunacy that Kemp and Sala get into is fundamentally simple (too much rum equals trouble)
As drab as the plot is, it actually takes a back seat to the antics of Kemp and his sidekick Sala (Michael Rispoli). The two become friends instantly upon Kemp’s arrival in San Juan, mostly due to their penchant for rum and narcotics, and their excursions are the thrust of the film. The real estate angle tries to give depth to the story more than it tries to be the story, which may or may not work depending on your own opinions.
Two concerns I had going in were that the movie was a) going to try and appeal to the lowest common denominator, just filming Johnny Depp and a sidekick while they got drunk and behaved foolishly in a sexy locale, and b) that it was going to try to be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas given that the source material was from the same warped mind of Hunter S. Thompson.
Thankfully, both concerns were alleviated.
Yes, there is plenty of drunken debauchery in the film, but it isn’t done in a way that any sensible human being could honestly relate to. The lunacy that Kemp and Sala get into is fundamentally simple (too much rum equals trouble) but builds into complex problems and hilarious payoffs (we’re in a San Juan jail handcuffed to a borderline dead guy, this isn’t good).
This film also makes no effort to be Fear and Loathing, and that’s an incredibly good thing. Combining the most eclectic mind in cinema, Terry Gilliam, with the most outrageous mind in literature, Thompson, was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Had Bruce Robinson tried to redo it, he would have failed miserably. So instead of a mescaline-fuelled hallucinogenic joy ride through Vegas, Diary gives the viewer a more subdued take on being drunk and getting in trouble in Puerto Rico.
My major qualm was the wink-and-nudge approach to comedy at points during the film. More than one scene provided an air of pompousness, as though saying “you people should be laughing at this, this is the Johnny Depp you’ve paid to see!” I could have done without that, because the movie didn’t need to grind away at the audience constantly in search of laughs or bully them into enjoying the film simply because it stars a big name. It was doing alright on its own.
Overall The Rum Diary is decent enough. When Depp is this good and he gets this kind of help from his supporting cast, which includes a delightfully manic Giovanni Ribisi and an incredibly sultry Amber Heard on top of Rispoli and Eckhart, it’s fairly easy to look past the negatives.